SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The running back is not exactly an NFL dinosaur. However, in most 2013 offensive playbooks, the running game is most certainly a complementary piece.
Today’s NFL is all about the pass. There's a little running for the mix, but this is an airman’s game.
Still, as archaic as it might seem elsewhere, the running game remains vital in San Francisco. And it starts with Frank Gore. In a league where running backs have lost their sizzle, Gore, 30, is still very much the meat of the 49ers' offense.
Gore has no magic answer for his long-term success as a runner in a passing league. A quiet, team player, Gore simply says running the ball “is what we do.”
Gore showed just how important he is to the 49ers in Week 4, when he had 153 yards -- his highest rushing total in four years -- on 20 carries in a 35-11 rout of St. Louis. Gore’s production sparked a San Francisco offense that previously had gone flat, scoring a combined 10 points in back-to-back defeats. With the receiving corps thinned by injury, Gore’s work was the necessary spark to the offense.
Since then, many in the organization have said Gore’s performance was a blunt reminder that this team wins on the ground. Expect the 49ers to continue to employ the strategy. It’s hard to argue with it.
“San Francisco may be the only place where the running game still opens up the passing game,” ESPN analyst Gary Horton said. “A good Frank Gore day is a good day for [49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick]. … I really think Gore is the most important cog in that offense, and you can’t say that about many running backs in this league anymore.”
Gore’s success and importance this season throw a light on what has been a tremendous career. Often overshadowed by niftier, flashier players, the University of Miami product has carved out a niche in the NFL. Kaepernick recently said Gore is a Hall of Fame player. Indeed, an argument for Gore's enshrinement could be made.
“Gore has been a total stud over his career and one of the best running backs of his generation,” ESPN analyst Matt Williamson said. “He certainly can still get it done.”
Gore has played 3,490 snaps since 2008, fifth-most by a running back during that span. Since entering the NFL in 2005, Gore has the third-most first downs by a running back (both as a rusher and a receiver). His 9,134 career rushing yards, a San Francisco franchise record, are the third-most since 2005, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Gore’s career numbers impress, but his value is paramount to the 49ers at age 30, which is ancient for an NFL running back. Last year, the 49ers averaged 5.1 yards a rush on first down. This year, it is down to 3.6 yards. But it’s not Gore’s fault: He averages 4.7 yards per rush on first down. Teams are focusing on shutting down Kaepernick in the run game, pushing down the 49ers’ run numbers overall.
But, once again, Gore is proving to be the perfect bailout plan.
“No question that everybody’s inspired by what he does,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said of his go-to back. “Nobody does it like Frank Gore.”
Horton thinks Gore is a "perfect fit" for the San Francisco offense because he trusts his blockers and is capable of doing whatever the coaches want in the running game.
“I give everyone over there a lot of credit,” Horton said. “They have the most creative run game in the league. They can do so many different things, and Gore is so versatile. He trusts his blockers and believes in them. And it shows. The result is a big payoff for San Francisco. They show that teams can still win on the ground in the NFL.”